Beat writer Scott Richey spotlights three items from the sixth day of Illini training camp on Friday:

One final opportunity for AveryCalvin Avery is one of Illinois’ top 25 recruits in the modern recruiting era. A four-star prized prospect out of Texas for former coach Lovie Smith. While Avery has played 42 games in the past four seasons, it’s never been in a prominent role. Illinois needs him to fill a bigger role this fall, with nose tackle a crucial part of defensive coordinator Ryan Walters’ scheme and the Illini having to replace Roderick Perry II.

“He’s changed his body,” Illinois defensive line coach Terrance Jamison said. “You think about Calvin, and Calvin was 350 pounds last year. Now he’s sub-320. He’s moving a lot better, he’s playing physical, so he’s really turning the corner. We want to keep the needle on him and keep pushing him. That’s why we’ve got those guys behind fighting. The competition is still there.”

Josh McCray ... punt returner?One player on the Illinois roster taking reps at punt returner during the first week of August dwarfs the rest of his teammates. Josh McCray, at 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds is not your typical return man. Whether the running back actually plays that spot when the season starts is up in the air, but McCray does have one key aspect of that position down pat.

“I know how to catch,” McCray said. “I’ve been catching punts all my life. I wouldn’t expect to be a punt returner being like (240). That’s kind of wild. It is different, but I like it.”

“Coach (Bret Bielema) kind of has some ideas that you don’t know about until they happen, and then they look really good,” Illinois running backs coach Cory Patterson added about McCray’s work as a returner. “He’s a little bit ahead of all of us.”

Intriguing newcomers in backfieldRunning back is the position group that arguably boasts the most depth — and most proven experience — of any on the Illinois roster. Chase Brown is back after rushing for 1,005 yards in only 10 games and averaging 5.9 yards per carry last season. So is McCray after a breakout freshman year that saw him compile 549 yards on 112 carries in addition to Chase Hayden and Reggie Love III, who combined for 176 rushing yards last season. The arrival of in-state freshmen Aidan Laughery and Jordan Anderson this spring as early enrollees only doubled down on that group’s depth.

“The spring did those guys tremendous,” Patterson said. “It was so good for them. I feel like both of those guys really picked up the offense fast. That’s why they’re so easy to plug and play a little bit.”

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

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